Can the world economy find a new leader?

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House examines the governance problems in the monetary system and global trade and regulation and whether issues have arisen because the US has given up its dominant role, and if so how these might be rectified.

Multilateralism may, in theory, put countries on an equal economic footing. But in practice the concept has often relied on an anchor government to create and preserve global norms. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the US has accelerated its move away from leadership in global economic governance. This shift threatens the monetary and trading systems that have long underpinned globalization. Does the global economy need – and can it find – another leader to take America’s place? In the monetary sphere, the US role in providing an internationalized currency has endured relatively well, even though the US’s formal anchoring of the global exchange rate system collapsed nearly half a century ago. Governance of the US dollar and of the dollar-based financial system has largely been left to competent technocrats.

Recent US political uncertainty has encouraged other governments, particularly in the eurozone and China, in their long-standing quest to supplant the dollar. But these economies’ internal weaknesses have prevented their respective currencies from playing a wider role. Arguments for a multipolar system exist, yet network effects plus the dollar’s superior institutions mean it has retained its dominance. In trade, the US role as anchor of the global legal order was already looking unreliable before Trump’s election. Washington has faced growing resistance at home to its global responsibilities. This, together with the idiosyncratic rise of countries such as China, has made the US an increasingly unreliable and narrowly transactional leader. More recently, hard-to-regulate issues such as foreign direct investment, technology transfer and data flows, often with national security implications, are increasingly undermining the ideal of multilateral global governance. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization, focused on cross-border trade in goods and services, are becoming less relevant.

Recent US actions against the Chinese technology firm Huawei show the Trump administration’s willingness to decouple the US market from China and try to drag other economies with it. As far as possible, other governments should resist taking sides. A complete separation of the global economy into rival spheres is probably unfeasible, and certainly highly undesirable. Although future US administrations may be less wantonly destructive, it is not realistic to expect them to resume America’s former role. Nor can the US simply be replaced with another power. Instead, coalitions of governments with interests in international rules-based orders will need to form. These coalitions will need to show due deference to issues like investment and national security, especially where attempts to bind governments by multilateral rules are likely to provoke a severe backlash from domestic constituencies.

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